Hilariously haughty opening credits aside (“A Tom Cruise production”…“Tom Cruise”…), the former Mr. Katie Holmes doesn’t appear until about 20 minutes into this ludicrous film adaptation of author Lee Child’s popular military thriller series. Instead, writer-director Christopher McQuarrie (The Way of the Gun) leads off with a genuinely suspenseful and disturbing set piece in which five seemingly random people are gunned down with ruthless efficiency in a Pittsburgh park. Every element of the sequence—from the breathily spare soundtrack to the queasily paranoiac atmosphere—suggests that the film to follow will be a few cuts above the usual Hollywood dross.
No such luck: Once soldier turned glowering drifter Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) arrives to show that there’s more to the case than meets the eye, we’re squarely in vanity-project land. There’s no seemingly airtight theory that our hero can’t debunk, no beatdown he can’t wallop his way out of, and no attractive young woman who won’t cast a “day-umm!” glance his way. All narrative tension buckles under the weight of this smugly one-dimensional performance, something counteracted only by the rousing hamminess of Werner Herzog, as a semideformed, way-underground gangster called the Zec. Whether blithely comparing American prisons to retirement homes or gleefully recalling the time he chewed off his own fingers in Siberia, the moonlighting German New Wave auteur injects some much-needed black humor into what is otherwise a soporific star vehicle.
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